Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Space Enough and Time

Space Enough and Time

I know, that's not what Marvell wrote, but it's what I want to discuss today. One thing that new writers sometimes fail to do is to make clear the surroundings of the characters and the time flow of the story. It's frustrating for the reader, and a little attention should be paid.

For instance, if three characters are in a room having a conversation, readers like to know their spatial orientation. Are two sitting or standing close to each other in a supportive or confrontational way, leaving the third out of the equation or pushing the third to the edge of the scene? Worth knowing.

How is a room oriented? I read a story once in which the protagonist and his wife were awakened by the morning sun streaming through their bedroom window (singular) and into their faces. A few chapters later the wife, wondering where her husband is, stands at the same window watching the sun set behind the hills.

That bothered me. Decide on the details of the locale. Sketch them out if need be. Keep the orientation in mind as you write.

And keep track of the characters' relationships to each other. It's a simple thing to write "Jessie sat nervously in the chair, waiting for the doctor's news. When he came in, Dr. Lanyard didn't speak until he was in his chair, with the broad expanse of his desk between them."

Or "Dr. Lanyard came in and reached for Jessie's hand. He gently pulled her to her feet and gave her a commiserating smile."

The placement of the characters helps determine the emotional content of your story.

Similarly, keep track of time. Editors used to go quietly but thoroughly nuts over mentions of the moon. A full moon in one chapter and a first-quarter moon in the next means that time must have passed...but if the writer has just fouled up, that may throw off the time line of the story. Me, I download a calendar for the year in which the story is set (I know, though I don't tell the reader) and consult it for moon phases.

If you don't outline - I do, but some writers can't stand it - at least write out a time line for your story, so that the days of the week pass in some semblance of natural order. Ditto for the passage of hours. I've seen stories in which characters have brief conversations that in real life couldn't last more than three minutes, but the writer treats it as though it lasted two hours. Distracting.

If you use flashbacks, make that clear. It also helps to tell us how far back we're going: "Frederica recalled that day three and a half years earlier when the dog dug up the human skeleton...."

Is there a rule? I suppose it could be summed up: "Keep the geography, the characters' spatial relationships to each other, and the flow of time clear. And don't screw up your moon phases."

Thanks, by the way, to Reb McRath for suggesting this topic!

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you picked up on my suggestion. You've fleshed it out for a terrific entry. A sidebar has come to mind: Authors may think they're slowing down the action by such attention to space and time--but I think we quicken the reading through our attention to detail. Readers aren't compelled to figure out precisely where the heck a chair is...or exactly how long a girl had been missing before anyone knew she was gone. At a critical point in Cuban Dagger, Jim Dallas anchors the time frame: "Since the evening of Friday, July 8. So Friday night, all of Saturday, all of Sunday morning." I noted, with a smile, that you even remind us of the month. Good show, Doctor. We've all got a lot on our minds and little memory jogs like this blessings.